Amitabh Bachchan has been unlike any Indian. No one man has straddled so many generations; endured the adulation of billions of people not just in India but across the world, and has not let stardom take away either his humility or his ability to connect not just with his admirers but more than that with causes that he has readily endorsed and supported. To call him a star would be to do disservice to him. To call him a superstar would be derogatory: he is just an outstanding human being with outstanding talent. A man who rose from the ranks even though he was born into an illustrious family. A family who gave the world his father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan and many years later welcomed a superlative actor in the form of Jaya Bhaduri.
It is not easy to be in the limelight for so long and with such intense gaze. Nor is it easy to have every move of yours dissected for public analysis: when you are able to cross that Rubicon of probity and discourse, you rise above the very concept of being human. Which is why Amitabh Bachchan will remain the special human being he is. Not because of the films he has done, or before that, the many plays in Calcutta. Not for the sacrifice he made for a friend Rajiv Gandhi and joined politics much against his will or the manner in which that Rajiv’s family moved away from him. Nor will he be remembered just for brining smiles to people’s faces when the unsung would walk away with Rs 1 crore on a television show that he began hosting and which today has become the aspirational rage of many an Indian home.
Like many Indians, my first memories of Amitabh Bachchan were associated with his craft. I still remember, as a young school student being taken by my parents to see a play of his in Calcutta in which my dear friend, Cedric Spanos (later my co-actor too) and he were acting. It was like any Calcutta play of those days: first-rate and compelling. But no one knew the man we would see on stage at Kala Mandir in Calcutta would go onto a much larger stage: one which spanned the world. So when Bachchan moved to Bombay, he moved with just one possession: his innate talent. He could have used his father’s influence but he didn’t. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, a family friend could have made one phone call to some Bollywood biggie but she didn’t need to. Thus began a career in which he re-defined the manner in which fine actors would engage with their craft. In an industry riddled with star-tantrums, here was an actor who lived by the clock and knew the deep meaning of a simple word: commitment. As also, being close to and keeping watch of a family that too became the subject of intense public gaze.
When he was admitted to a hospital in Bombay for an on-set injury, his family was joined by every Indian’s family in prayer: it was as if someone who was part of us had been hurt. Such love is showered only on people who make a tremendously material impact on people’s lives. Which is why as I said before, it more than star-adulation: it is an umbilical cord of affection and respect that has remained uncut to this very day.
I kept meeting Bachchan socially but there were no airs. He even came to my rather modest home in Delhi once to discuss a business venture with Martin Sorrell and had simple home-made lunch and when my staff asked for a picture he posed with genuine affection not with pretence or some form of gratuitousness. That is where the good differ from the great.
Two years ago, to celebrate his National Award winning performance for 'Paa', I hosted a dinner in his and Jaya’s honour at my home in Delhi. That was almost his coming out party for he had been kind of sequestered by some who were selfish enough not to share his grace and affection with the many who loved him. I still remember him and Jaya being absolutely on time; engaging with every guest and then came the moment when he had tears in his eyes upon seeing Mr and Mrs M K Rasgotra, the former Foreign Secretary of India and his father’s close friend. Bachchan had played in Mr Rasgotra’s home in Kathmandu when Mr Rasgotra was our High Commissioner to Nepal. These were tears of joy mingled with affection. Respect for elders shows character more than anything else. It shows pedigree and fine breeding and this has been the defining birthmark not of Amitabh Bachchan alone, but that of every member of his family. At the dinner he met many old friends and made several new ones. With grace and real purpose and not just pretence. He made everyone feel special which again is the birthmark of those who are special themselves.
Which is why October 11, 2012 will be more than just a birthday celebration: it will indeed be the celebration of humanity; of humanism and of humility. It will be a celebration of a man who has stood his ground in the wake of many adversities. A celebration of courage and conviction and most of all, a celebration of character untainted by the vagaries of modern society and all its ills.
For me, and like me for many across the world, Amitabh Bachchan has been a fine human being who excelled at his craft and continues to. These are special human beings and we are blessed to have them amidst us. They give us unhindered joy without ever seeking anything in return. The light from those 70 candles will shine for centuries as it should. And in its glow, we shall always thank whoever our God is, for allowing us to be part of the life and times of Amitabh Bachchan.
Here’s wishing Amitabh Bachchan a glorious 70th birthday.